A California interior designer and butterfly activist is standing trial for the murder of her stepfather, a man prosecutors say she killed because he kept nude photos of her on his computer.
Jade Janks, 39, and her former stepfather, Thomas Merriman, used to share a home together in Solana Beach, California, about an hour and a half south of Los Angeles. Though Merriman had divorced Janks’ mother many years ago, Janks continued to help Merriman. The two were passionate about protecting the native butterfly population, and both Janks and Merriman have been described as co-founders of Butterfly Farms, an organization dedicated to counteracting “the decline of native butterflies and other native pollinators.”
However, Merriman’s health had declined in recent years, and in late 2020, he had been admitted to the hospital. While he was away, Janks was allegedly cleaning his apartment when she accidentally jarred his computer and caused it to awaken. When it came on, Janks reportedly saw a nude picture of herself used as a screensaver. When she searched the computer itself, she saw even more nude images of herself, reports say.
Janks had taken those pictures consensually with a boyfriend more than a decade ago, reports claim. How Merriman came into possession of them is unknown. However, prosecutors believe that Janks became so enraged that Merriman had the photos that she plotted to kill him and make his death look like an accidental overdose.
During Janks’ murder trial, which began on Wednesday, prosecutors alleged that Janks forced or coaxed Merriman into consuming an excessive amount of sleeping pills after she picked him up from the hospital on New Year’s Eve 2020. On that day, Janks repeatedly texted a man whom prosecutors described only as a “fixer.” At 11:30 that morning, Janks supposedly texted him, “I just dosed the hell out of him. Stopping for whiskey then at Dixieland to stall. LMK.” Other text messages supposedly sent to the “fixer” that day include:
- “He’s waking up. I really don’t want to be the one to do this.”
- “I can’t carry him alone and I can’t keep a kicking body in my trunk.”
- “I am about to club him on the head as he is waking up.”
- “I’m not strong enough. He is very aware now and I am on my own.”
Prosecutors also allege that Janks contacted another friend that day to help her. When the unnamed man arrived at her home that night, Janks allegedly told him, “I want you to strangle him and then bring him into the house. I’ll take care of the rest.” However, the man said he did not want to be involved, so he left the residence and contacted police the following day. When police searched for Merriman, they found him dead among a pile of trash and blankets in a nearby driveway.
An autopsy determined that Merriman, 64, had died of acute zolpidem (Ambien) intoxication, though prosecutors have also claimed that Janks strangled him at some point as well.
Despite some apparently strong evidence from the prosecution, the defense claims that Merriman suffered from alcoholism, repeated drug use, and other health problems and that he had died of “his own cocktail” of drugs. Janks’ attorney, Marc Carlos, also noted that there is no “evidence that [Merriman] was strangled to death.”
Carlos said that, while Janks felt betrayed when she saw the photos, she had no plot to kill her stepfather, whom she viewed as her father. Janks has pled not guilty. She faces life in prison, if convicted.